Hannah Szenes, “To Die”
To Die (Nahalal 1941)
To die…so young to die…no, no, not I.
I love the warm sunny skies,
Light, songs, shining eyes,
I want no war, no battle cry –
No, no…not I.
But if it must be that I live today
With blood and death on every hand,
Praised be He for the grace, I’ll say
To live, if I should die this day…
Upon your soil, my home, my land
This is a photograph of the manuscript of one of Hannah Szenes’ lesser known poems entitled “To Die,” which she wrote during her time at Kibbutz Nahalal in 1941.
The poem is divided into two short verses. In the first, Szenes expresses her passion for life; dying young is not an option for someone with such a thirst for life. In the second, she comes to terms with the fact that even though death may come, she can at least die on God’s soil, in her homeland. Even though she didn’t die in Israel but was executed in Hungary, she was ultimately buried in the soil of her homeland.
Hannah Szenes (also written Senesh) was born in Budapest on July 17, 1921. Her father was a writer and journalist who died when Hannah was six years old. On completing high school, Szenes experienced anti-Semitism and decided to emigrate to Israel in 1939 and join the Zionist pioneers. She spent two years training at an agricultural school in Nahalal and was one of the founding members of Kibbutz Sdot Yam.
Szenes was disturbed by the events in Europe and felt a strong need to take part in the fight against the Nazis. In 1943 she volunteered for the British Army and her background and courage made her an ideal candidate for one of the most dangerous secret initiatives of the British and the Yishuv in Israel: parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe to collect information about the German forces and assist the underground movements.
In March 1944 Hannah Szenes and her comrades parachuted into Yugoslavia, near the Hungarian border. The paratroopers worked with partisans in Croatia, and in June 1944 Szenes crossed the border into Hungary. She was caught immediately and sent by the Hungarian police to Budapest for interrogation. Despite severe torture, she refused to give up details of the mission or its members. She was tried for treason, and in November 1944, before the trial was even completed, she was executed in a prison in Budapest.
Hannah Szenes was known as a talented poet and writer. She kept a personal diary until her very last day. After her death, many of her poems were discovered, poems such as “Blessed is the Match” and “A Walk to Caesarea” which later became an integral part of Israeli culture. Szenes also wrote letters, and a play called The Violin about kibbutz life. Szenes wrote in both Hebrew and Hungarian; the latter works were collected and translated into Hebrew.
In 1950, Hannah Szenes’ remains were brought for reburial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. In November 2007, her gravestone was brought from the Jewish cemetery in Budapest and placed in the cemetery in Kibbutz Sdot Yam.
Hannah Szenes has become a symbolic figure in Israeli culture, a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice. No less esteemed is her literary talent and her few but beloved works remain alive in Israeli culture to this day.
The National Library collection contains letters by Hannah Szenes in Hebrew and Hungarian, manuscripts of her poems, postcards, and manuscripts of her songs and music scores.
This resource can be used in Jewish History lessons to discuss the Jewish community in Israel during World War II. Jewish Studies teachers can use the poem to discuss altruism, Hannah Szenes as a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice, and the general sense of responsibility felt by Jews around the world for their fellow Jews in Europe.
In Literature classes the poem can be used as an example of early Israeli literature and analyse the translation of the poem, focusing specifically on how the poet’s short and sharp style strengthens her point.
Hebrew teachers can use the original text, analyse the language, and compare with the English translation.
In Sociology classes the poem can be used to discuss altruism, and Szenes as a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice.
Who wrote this poem?
What language is it written in?
When was the poem written?
What topics are discussed in the poem?
Reading Between the Lines
What is the message of the poem?
What can we learn from the poem about the mood of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Israel) in the early 1940s?
What made Hannah Szenes so patriotic towards her new homeland?
The words of this song are even more moving when considering the tragic death of the poet.
Who was Hanna Szenes? What were the circumstances of her death?
How would you define heroism?
Do you consider Szenes to be a heroine?
Make a list of five people who you consider to be heroes. What do they have in common?
Research other war heroes from Israeli history. What makes them heroes in the eyes of the Israeli public?